The other Carolina Panthers

by YES! Staff

Their symbol was an upraised, clenched black fist. Members wore black berets in paramilitary style. And in the late 1960s, the mere mention of the group’s name struck terror and outrage among white establishment and law-enforcement figures around the nation. In some circles, it still does.

But in Winston-Salem, history is judging the Black Panther Party, which took hold in the city between 1969 and 1976, with a more nuanced eye than the group’s contemporaries. In December 2011, the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission approved a historical marker commemorating the group, to be erected at the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and East 5th Street, near the group’s old headquarters.

The Black Panther Party was born of the racial unrest of the late 1960s, while a frenzy of assassinations took the lives of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Americans still felt growing pains after the enactment of the  Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Winston-Salemchapter channeled the Panthers’ sense of outrage and justice into street-level philanthropy for the black community.

The Panthers began in Oakland, Calif. to combat police brutality against African Americans in 1966, and chapters soon sprang up all over the country.

The Winston-Salem chapter came along soon after — built by, among others, Larry Little and Nelson Malloy, who would go on to serve on  the Winston-Salem City Council — and was perhaps the most successful in the South. Among its supporters were Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Jane Fonda and John Lennon.

The Winston-Salem chapter channeled the Panthers’ sense of outrage and justice into street-level philanthropy for the black community. The Panthers provided hot breakfast for children in need. They provided testing for sickle-cell anemia, a disease that predominantly affects the black community. The crowning achievement of the Winston-Salem chapter may have been the creation of an ambulance program — ambulances were less likely to respond quickly to African-American neighborhoods — that culled resources from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, Surry Community College, Winston-Salem State University and the national Episcopal Church, a project to which the Godfather of Soul himself contributed $4,000.

Little told YES! Weekly that his group managed all this while being subject to infiltration by law-enforcement and political adversaries, and an FBI counter-intelligence operation that distorted the intents and purposes of the group and sought to cut off their support — Little says that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself knew him by name and sought to “neutralize” him.

“I didn’t know if ‘neutralize’ meant shoot me,” Little said. Today, Little advises political candidates and teaches political science at Winston-Salem State. Other alumni from the Winston-Salem chapter of the Back Panthers are active in politics and religion, offer counseling to addicts and ex-cons. They no longer wear the berets, but their legacy enriches the lives of every citizen of the city. It is about time they got their due.

YES! Weekly chooses to exercise its right to express editorial opinion in our publication. In fact we cherish it, considering opinion to be a vital component of any publication. The viewpoints expressed represent a consensus of the YES! Weekly editorial staff, achieved through much deliberation and consideration .